Brathwaite is noted for his studies of Black cultural life both in Africa and throughout the African diasporas of the world in works such as Folk Culture of the Slaves in Jamaica (1970); The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820 (1971); Contradictory Omens (1974); Afternoon of the Status Crow (1982); and History of the Voice (1984), the publication of which established him as the authority of note on nation language.
Born Lawson Edward Brathwaite in the capital city of Bridgetown, Barbados, he started his secondary education in 1945 at Harrison College in Bridgetown. In 1949 he won the Barbados Island Scholarship to attend Cambridge University, where he studied English and History. In 1953, Brathwaite received an honours B.A. in History from Pembroke College, Cambridge, and he also began his association with the BBC's Caribbean Voices programme in London. In 1954 he received a Diploma of Education from Pembroke College, Cambridge; the year 1955 found Brathwaite working as an Education Officer on the Gold Coast/Ghana with the Ministry of Education. In 1960 he married Doris Monica Wellcome, a Guyanese graduate in Home Economics and Tropical Nutrition from the University of Leicester while he was on home leave from Ghana.
While in Ghana, Brathwaite's writing flowered, with Odale's Choice (a play) premiering in Ghana at Mfantsiman Secondary School. A full production of the play was later taken to Accra. In 1962-63, Brathwaite crossed the waters again and found himself as Resident Tutor in the Department of Extra-Mural Studies in St Lucia. Later in 1963, he made his journey to the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus in Kingston, Jamaica, to teach in the History Department.
In 1971 he launched Savacou, a journal of CAM, at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona Campus in Kingston, Jamaica. That same year, Brathwaite received the name Kamau from Ngugi wa Thiong'o's grandmother at Limuru, Kenya, while on a City of Nairobi Fellowship to the University of Nairobi, Kenya.
Kamau Brathwaite spent three self-financed "Maroon Years", 1997-2000, at "Cow Pasture," his now famous and, then, "post-hurricane" home in Barbados. During this period he married Beverley Reid, a Jamaican.
In 1992 Brathwaite took up the position of Professor of Comparative Literature at New York University, subsequently dividing his residence between Barbados and New York.
In 2002 the University of Sussex presented Kamau Brathwaite with an Honorary Doctorate.
In 2006, he was the sole person that year to be awarded a Musgrave gold medal by the Institute of Jamaica, with eight silver and bronze medals going to other recipients. In 2010, Brathwaite reported the theft of the medal, as well as other items from his New York home in the previous four years.